Five Questions: David Chandler on Charles Dibdin

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David Chandler is Professor of English Literature at Doshisha University in Kyoto. His publications range widely across eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture, including work on provincial society, the Lake Poets, George Borrow, Charles Dickens, Romantic essayists, theatrical performance and musical culture, including opera and popular song. He is also a director of Retrospect Opera and has been involved in two projects reviving and recording the music of Charles Dibdin (1745-1814): Christmas Gambols and The Jubilee. We discuss his interest in Dibdin below.

1) How did you first become interested in Charles Dibdin?

I can’t say there was one eureka moment. I became aware of his immense importance back in the 1990s, when I spent hundreds of hours in the old, much-missed British Newspaper Library at Colindale, reading both national and regional newspapers from the 1780s and 90s. Dibdin seemed to pop up all the time, and it was clear that he was a household name in that period: a celebrity, you might say. But my interests were elsewhere back then, and I didn’t look into why he was so omnipresent. Needless to say, he was never featured, indeed scarcely named, in discussions of the Romantic period. Much later, probably around 2006, I first read Roger Fiske’s classic study English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century (1973), and learned why Dibdin was so important. After that interest and knowledge gradually, but erratically, increased. I did volunteer a paper for the 2014, bicentenary “Charles Dibdin and His World” conference at King’s College, London. It wasn’t accepted, and I still regret the loss of that opportunity to be in a room full of people interested in Dibdin. But perhaps it was salutary, in a way – it made me focus more on the need to actually revive Dibdin’s music.

2) What have the main challenges been when seeking to reintroduce Dibdin’s productions to modern audiences?

Hmmm, there are several big challenges for sure. First, I suppose there’s the enormous inferiority complex that the British have about their own music, at least before Elgar, perhaps even before the Beatles! In a sense it keeps things simple to say “it just wasn’t very good, and hey, there’s no shortage of Bach and Mozart to listen to.” But I’m going to quote Fiske on this, as I think what he wrote in 1973 is still very apropos:

… we shall find no composers the equal of Bach, Handel, Haydn, or Mozart [in the British eighteenth century]. We would not find any in Italy either, or in France apart perhaps from Rameau. But in recent years less exalted composers have been giving increasing pleasure, and at the Vivaldi-Paisiello level English composers can compete with confidence.

Related to this, is the sense among literary scholars that the music of their period just doesn’t matter. A Romanticist who knows nothing of Turner and Constable, and increasingly of Gillray and Rowlandson too, say, will probably be marked down as pretty limited in their interests. But with British music of the period, ignorance isn’t merely safe, it’s kind of expected. The soundscape just doesn’t exist. I know that when Mike Leigh made his film Mr. Turner (2014), it was suggested to him that he incorporate actual British music from the period, as we know that Turner loved the popular songs of his time, including Dibdin’s (he transcribed several Dibdin songs in his notebooks). But Leigh didn’t want to, even though in other ways he was trying to really reflect Turner’s period. In the same sort of way, Dibdin was the best-represented composer in Jane Austen’s music collection, but I’m not aware of a single Austen screen adaptation that actually uses Dibdin’s music. We think we know what that period looked like, but we seem to have very little curiosity about what it sounded like. In addition to all this, classical music types tend to pigeonhole Dibdin as “popular music,” and therefore outside their area, while popular music lovers, even members of the professoriate, often seem to think that pretty much all music from before 1900 was somehow “classical music.” There are remarkably few people actually interested in the popular music of the past.

3) How would you characterise the nature of Dibdin’s creativity and accomplishments?

Dibdin was an extraordinarily prolific, protean figure. Too prolific in two senses: first, that a lot of what he did was slapdash; and second, that studies of him can easily end up overwhelmed by the immense quantity of his production. He’s remembered most of all as a composer, but in fact the bulk of his literary work is remarkable as well. I’m currently working on the two large quarto volumes of his Observations on a Tour Through Almost the Whole of England, and a Considerable Part of Scotland, in a Series of Letters of 180102, and that’s 800 pages just for a start! He had tremendous self-belief and drive, some of which probably masked insecurities, though he’s a difficult man to psychologically profile. The central concept in his aesthetic is always “Nature”: he believed all the arts should take their basic principles from nature, though of course he wasn’t always clear or consistent about what that meant. In music, he believed in the paramount virtue of melody, and was very suspicious of what he saw as unnaturally complicated, “technical” music, which he associated most of all with the German-speaking lands. He was perhaps above all a supreme impersonator. He became famous as an actor-singer before he became famous as a composer, and in his performance career he gravitated towards the one-man show where he would impersonate a whole series of characters, and sing songs in character. His songs may not always look much on the page, but they are nearly always suited to the sort of singer who can really inhabit them, who can imaginatively become the person who’s supposed to be singing the song. I’ll stick my neck out and say I think there’s something quite Dickensian about him, and I’m fascinated by the fact that Dibdin ended up writing novels, just as Dickens ended up doing one-man shows.

4) In what ways do you think that Dibdin’s works might be used to help students and scholars get a better grasp on the historical realities and breadth of culture in the Romantic period?

I’d say Dibdin was to the 1790s what the Beatles were to the 1960s. Some people will probably say that’s a huge exaggeration, but if anything it’s an understatement, for the Beatles had far more competition. Of course it’s possible to study the highbrow “literature” of the 1960s and never mention the Beatles, but to me that would be a rather thankless attempt to draw lines and erect boundaries. Historically, needless to say, Romantic studies have tended to be rather precious, and rather suspicious of popular culture unless “popular culture” could be narrowed down to Wordsworth writing ballads, or Byron’s poems flying off the shelves, or whatever. I suppose it’s only since 1990 that we’ve seen a broader opening up of the interface between literature and popular culture in English departments, and the fact that so much work is being done in this area makes me hopeful that eventually Dibdin will receive his due. Young people are almost always very aware of how their lives and sense of identity are shaped by and mirrored in popular music, so I believe they would be very open to sort of tuning in to the soundscape of the 1790s when studying the literature of that period. But for this to happen, we do need much more of Dibdin’s music to be recorded, and recorded not according to the rather sanitized norms of some “classical” music, but with a sense of its abundant, popular energy. Having said that, it needs to be emphasized that Dibdin, in a quite extraordinary way, interacted with every social class: in 1788 he gave a private concert to the Prince of Wales, the future George IV.

5) What other projects are you currently working on?

Dibdin seems to be taking up a lot of my time, one way and another. I recently completed an essay on his third and final novel, Henry Hooka (1807), which has never been discussed before, and I’m now writing about his landscape paintings, for Dibdin was an accomplished amateur artist as well as everything else, and ever since studying English and History of Art at undergraduate level I’ve had an itch to write about pictures. But my major Dibdin project in the foreseeable future is an edition and recording of The Wags (1790), Dibdin’s most successful one man show. The idea is to make this available as a free online resource, so hopefully people who’ve so far hesitated about seriously listening to Dibdin, or teaching him, will be persuaded to take the plunge. In the slightly more distant future, I would love Retrospect Opera to revive Dibdin’s The Waterman (1774), by far the most successful of his theatrical works (Dibdin wrote both the words and the music). I want to quote Kurt Gänzl, the great chronicler of popular musical theatre on this: “for more than a century the show enjoyed a popularity second to none (not even The Beggar’s Opera) amongst English ballad operas. [It was] played endlessly through Britain and its colonies”. If there was one theatrical work that almost every single London theatregoer knew in 1800, it was The Waterman, and I find it very sad that something that should be recognised as a national treasure has been so comprehensively forgotten. Just to fill out the picture, though, I’m also working on a book about the Italian composer Italo Montemezzi (1875–1952), a favourite of mine, who’s different from Dibdin in almost every possible way, apart from being unjustly neglected.